The Brain – New Perspectives for Manual Work: An Interview with Peter Schwind

by Christoph Sommer and Peter Schwind, PhD
March 2021

ABSTRACT Christoph Sommer interviews his faculty colleague Peter Schwind on how our work can influence the brain. Schwind discusses early insights, the manual work of Jean-Pierre Barral, DO, the classic intranasal work of Ida Rolf’s Seventh Hour, the interface of the viscerocranium and neurocranium, the senses as bridges to the brain, and the important concepts of ‘container’ and ‘contents’.

Christoph Sommer: Peter, a few days or a week before the coronavirus hit us here in Europe, upending our private and work lives, we were together with Jean-Pierre Barral, DO, video-recording a new manual approach to the brain. I remember you were quite nervous; can you share what was going on in you? 

Peter Schwind: Well, to tell you the full truth, it was because of the theme: the brain. I was quite nervous when we had Jean-Pierre in front of our cameras, and I’m also a little bit nervous now with this interview. There is an incredible complexity within the brain itself and even more in the ways how it interacts with all the parts of the human organism. But a practical approach requires a certain amount of simplicity, otherwise we get lost. It takes courage to talk about the potential of working manually on the brain. Only some of that what we want to accomplish can be made visible when researchers use the most modern imaging systems. There is of course a lot of research about the brain, and some of the research is very important for our practical work and for our concepts. Nevertheless, as Barral has stated many times, we have to be very, very modest when we, as manual practitioners, speak about the brain. 

CS: How have you thought about the brain in relationship to our work?

PS: Well, when I was a young Rolfer, I stayed very faithful to our traditional theories about the plasticity of the tissues and the plasticity of the shape of the human body. I had very little insight into the potential meaning of the brain for our work. If I remember well, we did not even dare to speculate about the potential role of receptors within the connective tissue. Fortunately, I dared to have a few thoughts as soon as I observed experienced colleagues at work. These thoughts gave some help to reflect about the brain and its presence in various kind of bodywork, about our work but also the work of Feldenkrais and the early osteopaths. 

At the beginning, the most important experience was when I observed Peter Melchior do the traditional Ten Series in class on a friend of mine who is a musician. Sometimes after class – this was in 1983 – we met privately at this friend’s house, and Peter demonstrated some additional work. He asked my friend to play a certain piece of music, then he worked on him, and after that we asked my friend to go back to the Steinway piano and play the same music. The three of us realized that he played the music in a way that sounded differently. My sense, as a musician myself, was that he played it in a more authentic way. After a few interventions by Peter Melchior, the musician seemed to establish a better connection with the original score for the music. It became obvious to us – especially when he played right after a short treatment – that his body was not ‘in the way’, while his mind was connecting well with the meaning of that piece of music. Music is similar to language, without being language, as the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno wrote many years ago. The work that Peter Melchior did was mainly focused on the fascial container, however the outcome showed up in different activity of the contents, the brain. He enabled the musician to use more appropriate ‘words’ within the ‘language’ of music.

That was the moment I started to speculate that we really do much more than working on and affect tissues. If the brain gives orders to the hands on the piano keys, and things sound different after very few interventions, there must be an interesting bridge between the fascial system and the brain, and vice versa. We made this observation many decades before researchers determined that about 80% of the sensory nerve endings are not in muscle fibers but in the fascial system.

CS: So, that was the beginnings of your speculation about how manual interventions modulate brain activity and refine actions of the musculoskeletal system. You had experience in the 1980s assisting in classes taught by Peter Melchior, Jan Sultan, Stacey Mills, and other teachers of the first generation after Ida Rolf. Did you think about working on the brain itself in those days?

PS: Honestly, no. We had great conversations during those days. But not about the brain. And international dialogue was not easy. There was no internet, no fax. Phone calls to the US were expensive. I remember writing a letter to John Upledger. A letter from Europe to the US took eleven days one way. A slow sort of romantic communication. I was happy when Upledger’s answer came twenty-two days after I had sent my questions to him. I am sure that big old John was aware of the importance of the brain. I saw good results in his work on babies who suffered from serious brain dysfunction, babies that we had treated in Munich before. But I had no understanding of the role of the brain in all this.

Again and again, I made a few observations that allowed us to speculate a little bit more. When we discuss single cases, we report of the results of single treatments. Perhaps those of us who are scientists will laugh and consider the results meaningless. And actually, we have to agree, many are meaningless. But I do think that sometimes we are confronted with single cases that are quite significant. And not only that, they are challenging and inspiring. Those individual cases can open our eyes for a new vision and frequently provide the basis for new techniques. We have to look at more and more single cases that are comparable. And at the same time we have to be aware that every brain is different, like every human structure is different, as Hans Flury stated many years ago. The brain is perhaps the most ‘individual’ part of us – and that is why the individual case is so meaningful. 

One of those meaningful cases was a nine-year-old boy who had disturbed coordination in walking and other activities that stemmed from a lack of oxygen to his brain during his birth. I would say it was a very mild sort of cerebral palsy. A week after a detailed, traditional Second Hour [of the Rolfing Structural Integration (SI) Ten Series] – with work especially on his feet and lower legs, and a little on his back – the mother showed me samples of his handwriting in school work done before and after that session (see Figure 1). His handwriting had completely changed. Of course, there was no control group, no scientific perspective. But it became more and more obvious to me that something had changed in his coordination. I later had several inspiring talks about it with our colleague Hubert Godard and with you, Christoph, and we agreed that what had happened inside the brain of this boy could be understood from the early research of Nikolai Aleksandrovich Bernstein. 

Bernstein (1896-1966) was a Russian scientist whose research on human coordination, and movement in general, was revolutionary. Unfortunately, his research was not accessible for a long time because of a controversy between Bernstein and Pavlov. Lenin favored Pavlov’s research, so the political situation in the Soviet Union isolated Bernstein in a very difficult position for a long time. I encourage all of us to look at his writings because I consider Bernstein’s research an important first step for us as Rolfers™ to think about the connection of the brain with the musculoskeletal system.

Back to the boy and the transformation of his handwriting. What Bernstein found in his research is that certain movement patterns – in this case, writing – are not present just locally (i.e., the hand and forearm), but that the pattern of the movement is present in the whole organism. So, if you, for example, take a pencil with your foot and write, it still shows the same essential form as your handwriting, or if you hold the pencil with your mouth and write. Patterns of coordination are present in the whole organism, not only in single parts. That’s, I think, a big challenge for our work. We may get a little bit more understanding how working intelligently on the lower extremity has an effect on the coordination of the upper extremity. Ida Rolf would have said: “Go where it ain’t.”

CS: So, working on the boy’s feet gave more freedom for the use of the hand. Some awakening happened in his arms and hands, so that he was then able to write in a much clearer and more fluent way, although you didn’t touch his hands.

PS: We didn’t touch the ‘upper pole’ at all except for a little bit of traditional work on the neck. Interestingly enough, his pattern of walking also had changed in a very productive way, as I noted when I saw him again weeks later. His organism had learned something new: I checked over a period of months, and the more coordinated walk remained present. So the challenging and the inspiring aspect for us is that working with the fascial system in a sensitive way, using active and passive micromovements of the joints, seems to stimulate a learning process in the central nervous system, which is much more than just making tissue a little bit softer for the next hours or days.

CS: So, you had these early considerations, Peter, of how we can educate the brain as we work on the other end of the human body. What should we pay attention to in our traditional Seventh Hour when we work with the upper pole? What can we do for the brain that is real manual work, not just education? 

PS: I’ll address several aspects. For a long time, I wondered what made Ida Rolf focus so much on the junction of the maxillae and the mandible with the neurocranium. This has led us to a very global hypothesis: that the junction of the neurocranium and viscerocranium is very basic for the whole function of the craniosacral system, and especially for that part that is called the brain. This is a very profound junction because the anterior space of the neck is in constant movement activity (e.g., swallowing and other inner motions). And this activity manifests in all sort of tissues that connect the neurocranium with the viscerocranium. 

To understand the ‘spacious’, nonlinear modalities of force transmission, it helps to look at the anatomical research of Frank Willard. We can see that the space of the neck is probably – aside of the respiratory diaphragm and the heart – one of the most dynamic spaces of the whole human organism. Dentists and oral surgeons know that this dynamic space around the throat and around the occlusion of the upper and lower teeth can put tremendous pressure on the neurocranium. We may say, and some dentists will agree, that this can be dangerous for the brain itself. The brain is sensitive to pressure and temperature. We have to keep an eye on this reality. When we become aware of that, it becomes obvious that the spatial order of the different parts of the brain (i.e., the order and dynamics of the ‘contents’) and the order and dynamics of the surrounding membranes and bones (i.e., the order of the ‘container’) are most important for the regulation of pressure and temperature. And it becomes obvious that the vessels that connect from inside the brain to the body, and the nerves, are the bridges between the brain and everything else.

That leads to another consideration. We need to thank Barral for a lot of inspiration here. Whenever we work manually, the client’s senses are the bridges to his brain, and the ‘senses’ are present in the nerves – motor nerves and also sensory nerves. To give an example: the same intervention will show different outcomes if the client has his/her eyes open or closed. It is also relevant if we use verbal intervention while we touch, or if we stay strictly within the modality of nonverbal communication using touch. Many years ago, a world-renowned musician asked me to have his own music playing during the manual treatment. I refused. Today I would be open for this. Too bad the person is not alive anymore.

I’d like to comment on the traditional Seventh-Hour intranasal work. Some practitioners are not sure why we should do it, and of course just saying that we do it because Ida Rolf taught it is not an intelligent answer. I remember in the early 1980s hearing Emmett Hutchins say that intranasal work is not about making the nose bigger; it’s about stretching the membranes inside the sinuses. That’s very relevant, because the sinuses, with their role in air ventilation, are important as a cooling system for the brain. 

CS: I know that from wearing masks nowadays!

PS: Yes, everyone is now feeling what before was experienced only by those of us who tend to have chronic inflammation in the sinuses, inside the maxillary sinus or inside the other sinuses. We realize how important it is to have a cool brain. So, the intranasal work is important, and I want to highlight especially how to work inside the nose. It helps to understand how to do the job elegantly, to understand how we establish contact inside the nose, while giving gentle support from the outside of the nose. If we give support on the outside of the nose while we carefully work with a small finger inside. We speculate that it is possible to have an influence on the olfactory nerve. This can be very important for people after automobile accidents where they almost lose, because of compressional forces on the nerve, the capacity to smell. Boxers say that it does not hurt any more when you get your nose broken a third time. We know why.

A few of us working in Munich have begun to see clients who have recovered from COVID-19 infection. It will be interesting to check how we can affect any damage that has happened to the olfactory system and the olfactory nerve. Of course, it is a critical question to find the right time for the treatment, because research has shown, that the virus can remain in this area much longer than the time of acute illness.

But there is a whole other aspect to it. The nerves that help us to smell are a direct avenue to the inside of the limbic system and especially to the so-called archeo-brain, which is the place where our brain handles smell, even if we are not aware of it. Humans don’t have such a sophisticated a system to smell as, for example, dogs and elephants. Our human brain is able to recognize up to 400 different smells. The ‘smell department’ of our brain is oftentimes active, even if we are not aware of it, and because of that we tend to make emotionally influenced decisions. But smell is very different from seeing. Whenever we see, our brain has the chance to do lots of interpretations of the visual perception. The visual cortex ‘processes’ the visual impression. Smelling is different: a smell goes directly to the brain, and the brain has little or no chance for interpretation. We can say that smell is a direct avenue to our inner world of feelings. It is impressive that Sigmund Freud payed so much attention to the sensory anatomy of the nose during his early studies. For German readers or speakers, I want to suggest listening to the podcast Das Gehirn und der Finger where the neurologist Dr. Magnus Heier (2021) talks about the nose with Daniel Finger. It gives lots of important information concerning our ability to smell.

CS: So, it’s not only that Rolfing Seventh-Hour nose work has an effect on the sinuses, it also provides stimulation or traction to, or a freeing of, the olfactory nerve, and that reaches into the limbic system and may change a pattern of perception there.

PS: Yes. I think this is one of the really good outcomes of the traditional Seventh Hour of Ida Rolf. I’m not sure what she would say if she heard that, but in my understanding it’s a clear extension of that approach.

CS: So that’s one avenue working with the brain, and there’s other avenues via the eyes or the brain itself. What about the emotional component of our facial expressions, Peter?

PS: Well, ever since Wilhelm Reich’s different modalities of work, there’s been much consideration of strain around the tempomandibular joint (TMJ). I think – and again this is just a hypothesis – that a balanced autonomous nervous system is only possible with balanced tensional forces around the temporomandibular joints. The tensions of this area are easily transmitted to the eyes. Bates, who developed the well-known Bates method for eyesight, said that some people actually cannot let go of tension around the eyes even during sleep. Some cases seem to be caused by too much muscle tension and fascial strain coming from the TMJ. Forces that manifest on the two maxillae act intensively on the brain. During our last Brain course at the Munich Group, I learned from Barral that the fascia of the temporal muscle has a direct connection to the membrane that envelopes the brain. 

CS: And this force transmission has some implicit emotional meaning?

PS: Any emotional state is present all over the body. But certain emotions are especially present in certain parts of the body. And certain emotions are especially present in certain areas of the brain, while the brain as a whole is involved. Look for example at the brain of solo climbers. Researchers have found that the amygdala, which plays an important role in being able to feel fear, comes into action only very slowly in some solo climbers. That will help them when they get caught in a dangerous moment. The scientists used sophisticated imaging systems to document what goes on inside the amygdala. These new imaging systems could help to prove if we are really doing something significant whenever we try and stimulate the plasticity of the brain to heal itself – I use the words of Norman Doidge. His book The Brain that Changes Itself is such a valuable resource for bodyworkers (2007).

CS: And our work traditionally has an influence on plasticity, if I understand you correctly.

PS: Yes. Ida Rolf started to use the notion of ‘plasticity’ long ago. It is an interesting challenge to think about the relationships existing between the plasticity of the tissues – whatever that means – and the plasticity of the brain. I want to come back to another anecdote. I remember working on a four-year-old girl who had such intense cranial strain that it was not possible to touch her cranium. My colleagues and I decided to make home visits around midnight when the girl was sleeping deeply, and we treated especially the cranium and the feet. Touching her cranium and feeling, through the bones, there was a very unusual feeling of the individual morphology of this young brain.

CS: You mean the internal pressure was unusual?

PS: Not only the internal pressure, it felt like the entire parts of the brain and the many tiny arteries inside the brain and the cells of connective tissue were ‘mixed together’; the whole morphology, as far as we could feel it through the cranium, felt so different from what we would sense usually in children at this age. The girl had had very serious inflammation of the brain as a baby, and as a result of that her ability to speak was drastically reduced. After a few treatments, the girl started to speak normally, but I didn’t relate that to the work we did. I thought it was just by chance. But much, much later, when I watched Barral work on a stroke victim, I started to rethink my observations about the little girl. For this young human it was an emotional breakthrough to be able to say “pizza.” She had suffered so much to not be able to articulate that word when they had pizza for lunch at the kindergarten.

Another question. In one of your books, The Croissant Inside the Brain (Schwind 2018), you describe how Barral gave you some insight into how one can work with internal brain injuries after strokes.

PS: This book tells the story of a very tragic event. It is a storytelling book that wants to talk to the natural intelligence of the reader. This book is, as we say in German language, written with the blood of my heart. But I wonder if it may be misunderstood when we read it in English language. Translation is not easy. Its point is not to glorify Barral as the practitioner or myself as the author. Rather, I hope to stimulate manual practitioners to start their own thinking, their own speculation, about the brain, to be open to a wider perspective of looking at the work. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it in front of my eyes, that manual work could help someone recover to a significant degree from very severe brain damage. After the stroke, Bruno, the hero of this story, was not able to speak for almost one year. And he found the way back to language. What I admire very much about our friend Barral is that he does not mystify this kind of thing. He tries to do something that is extremely difficult in a very simple way. Barral explores the physiological and anatomical reality of the human brain and makes it accessible for manual treatment. The philosopher Karl Marx claimed in the appendix of Capital (Das Kapital) that he has put Hegel from standing on his head to standing on his feet. Maybe Barral does the same with William Garner Sutherland.

CS: He opens our senses for that, what we can really sense and observe?

PS: Yes, it is something we can sense with our hands. He demystifies many ideologies about working with the cranium. For example, many people will say, “I feel the hypophysis [pituitary gland],” or they say, “I feel that part of the brain,” but Barral challenges this as he believes that’s not possible. We can feel certain irregularities. What we as Rolfers or as manual practitioners may learn from this – and again it’s a hypothesis – is that we may be able to feel through the cranial bones and through the membranes of the brain, to collect some information. Our hands will be attracted to a certain space inside the brain, sometimes towards a tiny spot. And we may recognize that certain parts of the brain are active or not. That may be enough.

Or we want to go a little bit further. We could observe the activity of the brain when we have a client with some dysfunction of the lower limb, around the knee. We observe the brain, and then ask the client to move the knee. We will see if we can sense activation in a certain part of the movement cortex or somewhere else. Then we work on the knee, and we observe the brain again. We remember what if felt like before. Recently there are some new imaging systems that actually can check if what we sense is reality or just a fantasy. 

I believe that we are able to sense activation or circulation in the brain, but I doubt that we are able to make clear distinctions of the different units of the brain that clearly. We may sense a tumor inside the brain, but most likely we don’t feel it directly; instead we may feel how it changes the situation inside the ventricles, as Barral says; or we may sense that our hands get attracted to that problematic part of the brain. To avoid getting lost in complexity, it helps to know the anatomy of the brain, its spatial anatomy, which I find so difficult to understand. We have to know that very, very well, but at the same time not fall in the illusion that we are feeling those structures directly and discretely. The cranium and the brain are an area where we are in danger of getting lost in our romantic fantasies. This may be – or not – the trap of esoteric approaches. They are so enjoyable for the practitioner’s mind, but for the client’s organism they sometimes seem to produce little result except deep relaxation (which also has its value).

CS: So, in summary, it’s clear that the brain is very complex. There are many ways of connecting to it – educating it; treating it indirectly via the TMJ; connecting with the nerves to the emotional and coordinative system, and to our balance and gravity – but there’s immense complexity and detail that follows from that. Do you have any concluding remarks for us Rolfers about how to do the Seventh Hour and what to look for? And what do you have to say about the brain per se, how to look at it?

PS: In practice, a productive way of working is to ‘touch’ the brain by using neutral touch, a sort of touch that is free of our personal projections. A musician may write a kind of melody that sounds like a question, and a few seconds later we listen to the answer. The composer Ludwig van Beethoven was great at that. Think about his Bagatelles for piano op. 33. He wrote into the scores: “Mit einem gewissen sprechenden Ausdruck” [with a certain speaking expression]. In manual work we shall find the same perspective by using touch like Beethoven used sound. When working on the brain, we ask questions by touching and await the answer. And that is certainly relevant not only for work on the brain. I like the statement of the great Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt about the brain: “I believe in the limits of knowledge and in the power of imagination. The most wonderful thing is the human brain, more wonderful than the god it is able to conceive” [translated by Georgette Delvaux, DC].

Peter Schwind PhD was certified as a Rolfer in 1980, as a Rolfing Instructor in 1985 and as an Advanced Rolfing Instructor in 1999. He practices in Munich (Germany). He has written a series of books that were translated into several languages. The English version of his last book The Croissant Inside the Brain was published recently (Barral Productions). Peter has together with Christoph Sommer – produced and edited seventeen DVDs about the work of Jean-Pierre Barral (Munich group media).

Christoph Sommer is a Certified Advanced Rolfer and Basic Rolfing Instructor at the European Rolfing® Association e.V. He has been practicing in Munich since 1986. Additional training in Fascia and Membrane Technique (with Peter Schwind) and Visceral, Neural and Articular osteopathy (developed by J.P. Barral) for more than thirty years has led him to broadening the ‘classical’ structural perspective. Since 2008 he also teaches for the Barral Institute.


Craig, A. D. 2015. How do you feel an interoceptive moment with your neurobiological self. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.     

Doidge, N. 2007. The brain that changes itself: Stories of personal triumph from the frontiers of brain science. London: Penguin Books.

Heier, M. 2021. Das Gehirn und der Finger [podcast]; episode with Daniel Finger. Listen here.

Barral, Jean-Pierre. 2020. A manual approach to the brain, part 1. Munich, Germany: Munich Media.

Schwind, P. 2018. The croissant inside the brain: The legendary manual therapy of Jean-Pierre Barral, DO, MRO(F), RPT. Barral Productions. 

Wikipedia contributors, “Nikolai Bernstein,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed February 14, 2021). Read more here.

Note for Schwind (2018), German original edition:

Peter Schwind, Das Croissant im Gehirn

Die ungewöhnliche Osteopathie des Jean-Pierre Barral, Random House, München 2015

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